Where there isn't a will, there's a war: the tragic case of John and Anne Scarle.

Photo Credit: Chris Sabor

In this tragic case John Scarle and Anne Scarle were found dead from hypothermia by police in their home in 2016.  Police were alerted to their absence by neighbours and by the time they were found in their home they had been dead for some time (perhaps more than a week).  At the time of their deaths John was 79 and Anne was 69… and so the story begins.

The plot thickened after their deaths when their estates went through the process of administration.  Both John and Anne had children from previous relationships.  Neither Anne nor John had a will and the rules of intestacy dictate that an estate passes to a surviving spouse, and if none, to the deceased’s children.  So, I hear you think: they both died, so their estate should be shared. 

If only that were the case.

What actually happened was a complex legal wrangle.  If John died first, then everything would have passed to Anne (however briefly), and then onto Anne’s children.  Likewise if Anne died first, everything would end up with John (briefly) and then John’s children. The stakes for the children were high (John and Anne’s house was worth £280,000).  The writer is not privy to the discussions between the children (Anna, John’s daughter and Deborah, Anne’s daughter) but somehow this case ended up in the High Court.

The facts and the law in the case appear to be at odds with almost impossible asks being made of everyone involved (police, courts etc).  Basically, it boils down to:

(1) a presumption at law (Law of Property Act 1925 s184) when two people die together (or within a short space of one another) the elder is deemed to have passed first (i.e. John); versus

(2) some evidence gathered by the police that it seemed that Anne may have been dead for longer when they found the bodies.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the tragedy of the deceased couple, the handling of the aftermath or the law, one thing rings clear and true: the outcome is not as the deceased would have wanted it. Legal fees alone will account for a significant proportion of the money left by Anne and John in their home.  Presumably they were frugal throughout their lives (and into their deaths) so this waste of their life savings is a terrible pity. The publicity around this case will have negative effects on both of the daughters: Deborah and Anna.

Where there’s a will there’s a way…

All of the issues faced by the family could have been avoided if Mr & Mrs Scarle had taken legal advice and made a will.  The standard wills at makeawillonline.co.uk account for what should happen if people die at the same time (or within a few days of each other).  It is a type of clause known as a “commorientes” clause. This stops a multitude of problems and ensures that your wishes can be carried out – and in some estates, mitigates against inheritance tax.

The take home message from this is: take half an hour.  Make a will.  Make sure that you don’t end up like John and Anne’s poor daughters: locked in a legal battle where everyone is the loser.